Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Jews, Napoleon and the Ottoman Empire: the 1797-9 Proclamations to the Jews

While campaigning in Israel in 1799 did General Napoleon Bonaparte write a proclamation to the Jews? 21st-century historians are more or less evenly divided. But, the deeper story is not simply whether he did so while in Israel, but also the one or more of his earlier Jewish proclamations, similarly issued as revolutionary propaganda to destroy the Ottoman Empire. Thus, a neglected Ottoman-Turkish source says there was already in the Muslim year 1212 (1797-8) a revolutionary proclamation inviting Jews to come together to "establish a Jewish government in Jerusalem" (قدس شريفده بر يهود حكومتى تشكيل). Based on such a report from Constantinople, European and British newspapers in May 1799 repeatedly featured accounts of a proclamation from Napoleon inviting Jews to reestablish "ancient Jerusalem" or the "Kingdom of Jerusalem." An age-old People and its aboriginal homeland -- this compelling theme echoed for decades, with profound consequences in the 20th century. 

Allen Z. Hertz was senior advisor in the Privy Council Office serving Canada's Prime Minister and the federal cabinet. He formerly worked in Canada's Foreign Affairs Department and earlier taught history and law at universities in New York, Montreal, Toronto and Hong Kong. He studied European history and languages at McGill University (B.A.) and then East European and Ottoman history at Columbia University (M.A., Ph.D.). He also has international law degrees from Cambridge University (LL.B.) and the University of Toronto (LL.M.).


Jacques Godechot's important book, La grande nation, l'expansion révolutionnaire de la France dans le monde (1789-1799) [The Great Nation: The Revolutionary Expansion of France in the World, 1789-1799] was first published in 1956. In a thoughtful review, University of Paris, Professor of French History, Marcel Reinhard observed with regard to the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (April-June 1958):
The rights defined in 1789 were those of every man, of every citizen, and they were, despite some opposition, also recognized as applying to Jews and Blacks. And as such, they also passed onto the world stage. Thus, the concept of national sovereignty wasn't simply the privilege of the French nation, but was a natural and imprescriptible right recognized for every nation.
Reinhard's international assessment was not just an ex post facto judgment, but was often expressed in the 1790s. Then, it was integral to the key notion of la grande nation. This referred to the great French People which was literally big, because numbering 27 million at a time when the USA had only 5.3 million and the British Isles 15.7 million. Ideologically, la grande nation was deemed to be, spiritually and materially, older brother to other fraternal Peoples, including the Jewish People. And, the Revolutionary French Republic was imagined as entitled to senior status in relation to the other actual or imminent revolutionary republics. The modern comparison would be to the global leadership once claimed by Soviet Russia among Communist countries.

Consider the example of the Corsican-born Greek Maniote, Dimo Stephanopoli who was sent as French-Revolutionary emissary to the Morea (Peloponnese), then under Turkish rule. There, he expounded at a late 1797 secret meeting, at Marathonissi in the Mani, with patriots from several parts of Greece. According to Dimo, the French Revolution had universal meaning (1799):
Learn what has happened in the new Athens. The French People has destroyed its tyrants and has given itself laws. These laws propagate themselves with regard to all the Peoples. Man, they say, was born and must live in freedom (libre). We are all equal and must constitute nothing less than a single family of brothers. [...] Buonaparte will come all the way to Constantinople to plant the tree of liberty.

Just as China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (邓小平) brought an end to the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1978, so in November 1799 Napoleon terminated the French Revolution which was bitterly anti-Roman Catholic. In France, some Catholics had stubbornly sustained regional insurrections against the French-Revolutionary regime, throughout the period of the Directory (1795-1799).

For both Deng and Napoleon, ending the revolution meant an astonishing ideological evolution over a relatively short period of time. In this context, Napoleon's views of Jews, Judaism and the Jewish People were significantly different during and after the French Revolution. As a revolutionary, Napoleon naturally recognized the peoplehood of the Jews, just as he did that of the Greeks. But once the French Revolution was over, he mostly lost interest in Jews as a sovereign People with an ancient homeland, inter alia, because ending the revolution famously meant reconciling with Roman Catholics. Certainly, Napoleon understood that the Roman-Catholic Church theologically despised Jews and has historically always wanted Jerusalem for itself. To the point, Catholics have for many centuries claimed that, by virtue of Jesus, they had become the real "people Israel," and thus there was no longer any divine covenant with Jews for the Holy Land (supersessionism).

Napoleon personally generated around 33,000 letters and myriad other papers. Although a great mass of his product survives, many items were lost in the normal course of events. In addition, for political and/or personal reasons, Napoleon was in the habit of purposely destroying or even falsifying documents. For example, First Consul Bonaparte ordered a great number of records removed from the archives in 1802. While he was Emperor (1804-1815), these and other documents were burned at his command, as in September 1807. Many of those disappeared pieces related to the 1798-9 Mideast campaign. Such destruction of historical material is directly pertinent, because his earlier expressions of sympathy for Jewish peoplehood and homeland had become for the "Emperor of the French" an embarrassment best concealed and forgotten.

During the reign (1852-1870) of his nephew Napoleon III, some more of the uncle's documents were intentionally destroyed, including because they were judged to be strongly offensive to Roman-Catholic feeling. A Catholic (perhaps even ultramontane) perspective was consistently championed by the devout Empress Eugénie who regularly attended cabinet meetings. She would probably have seen any archival confirmation of Napoleon the Great's revolutionary proclamations promising Jews Jerusalem, as seriously damaging the Bonaparte dynasty's brand among Catholics in France, Europe and the Mideast. If so, such a political calculation would have been rational. At that time, many Catholics worldwide still strongly believed that Jewish emancipation domestically and Jewish peoplehood internationally were subversive French-Revolutionary principles attacking Christianity.

The very same logic had already been adopted by the Greek Orthodox Church -- not only with respect to Jewish emancipation, peoplehood and homeland -- but also with regard to the popular rights of the Greeks themselves. Thus, as early as 1798, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople was energetically backing the Turks against pro-French, Hellenic revolutionaries like Rigas Feraios (Ρήγας Φεραίος). Let it be remembered that the reactionary Austrians arrested Rigas for "serious political crimes" and then heartlessly extradited him to Ottoman Belgrade, where the Turks killed him in June 1798.

Under the revolutionary slogan "liberty, equality and fraternity," the historic, inflammatory Rigas proclamation was printed in Vienna in Greek (1797) by the thousands, and then widely read in the Ottoman Balkans. But, not a single one of this original printing can be found today. Several thousand of these proclamations were destroyed by the Habsburg authorities. And, the Orthodox Church systematically collected and burned the printed Rigas proclamations found in the Ottoman Empire. All that is now left to us of the text of the famous Rigas proclamation stems from a single, handwritten, translation into German, preserved in the Austrian State Archives. Can we be surprised if, as explained below, Napoleon's proclamations to the Jews met a similar fate in the grim struggle between revolution and reaction?

Here our answer must also be informed by the Habsburg intelligence service, the Polizeihofstelle. On October 7, 1806, the Imperial Court Chamberlain and Police Minister, the arch-conservative Baron Joseph Thaddäus von Sumerau, ordered local officials throughout Austria to gather for eventual burning, all materials relating to the invitation (sent to the synagogues of Europe, Russia and the Ottoman Empire) to send delegates to Paris for the February 1807 opening of Napoleon's Grand Sanhedrin. Did this special police operation perhaps also net some copies of Napoleon's earlier proclamations to the Jews? Or is this 1806 police effort just a contemporary example proving that, in those days, the Austrian security services did in fact set about systematically collecting and destroying Napoleonic documents addressed to the Jews?


For more than two hundred years there has been argument over the authenticity and meaning of one or more wartime messages which the 29-year-old French Revolutionary General, Napoleon Bonaparte is alleged to have addressed to the Jewish People during his 1799 campaign in the Holy Land. This territory was then included within the 18th-century French understanding of Ottoman "Syria" where Napoleon himself judged "Jews were quite numerous."

Napoleon was hungry for glory. From youth invoking the names of the great men of ancient history, he regularly included the storied Achaemenid ruler Cyrus the Great (d. 530 BCE) who famously sent Jews back to their homeland and authorized the building of the Second Temple. "I am Cyrus," said former USA President Harry Truman in 1953 when, five years after the fact, he was trying to take full credit for creating the State of Israel. Exactly like Truman, the Napoleon of 1797-9 felt the weight of both history and posterity.

This probably made it easy for him to grasp that helping the Jews return to their ancestral homeland would be the kind of deed likely to win him lasting fame. Such deference to Jewish antiquity was counterpart to Napoleon's revolutionary views about the companion possibility of freeing the Greeks. In exile on Saint Helena (1815-1821), he reminisced:
What glory to him who will liberate Greece! His name will be engraved beside that of Homer, Plato and Epaminondas. I nourished such a hope when [1796-7] I was fighting in Italy.

The two different territories that had once been ancient Greece and the biblical Land of Israel (Heb: אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל‬ Eretz Yisrael) were then both part of the Ottoman Empire which Napoleon was certain (1797) would fall during his lifetime. He was a Corsican. From his Mediterranean perspective, Jews and Greeks were similar as storied, age-old Peoples now living partly under Ottoman rule and partly in broader diaspora. From his revolutionary perspective, the "spirit of liberty" ensured that, in either case, national awakening was already on the horizon.

Jewish peoplehood as revolutionary rhetoric

The pertinent events occurred several years after revolutionaries had executed Louis XVI, King of France. The contemporary context was the eve of the War of the Second Coalition (1798-1802) pitting several European monarchies and the Ottoman Empire against the Revolutionary French Republic (la grande nation) and its satellite republics. Then, revolutionary and republican rhetoric still trumpeted the new political principle of the self-determination of Peoples. From 1798-9, there is detailed evidence that some prominent revolutionaries, exactly because they were doctrinally so hostile to the Roman-Catholic Church, were all the readier to see the Jews as an age-old and famous People "bent under the yoke of princes."

Formerly a Roman-Catholic priest, Joachim Le Breton
was one of the editors of the highly influential journal
La Décade philosophique.

Under the government of the Revolutionary Directory, the influential Paris weekly La Décade philosophique was, ideologically, France's premier periodical. It was religiously read by the Republic's leadership, including Napoleon who for a time carefully cultivated good relations with its editors and writers.

Likely party to the secret that Napoleon's army would soon set sail for Alexandria was the former Roman-Catholic priest Joachim Le Breton. He was a senior official of the Ministry of the Interior, a Member of the Institut National, and one of the editors of La Décade. He conveniently wrote "Considerations on Egypt and Syria and the Power of the English in India." This is a detailed, two-part article, published on April 9th and 19th, 1798. The long essay is nothing less than a strategic and moral justification (la mission civilisatrice) for the intended French invasion and colonization of Egypt and Greater Syria. Those two regions are specifically identified as new venues for large-scale European settlement, instead of the Americas. (Napoleon too then thought those two Mideast places ought to be extensively colonized by Europeans.)

In this connection, Le Breton highlighted the Jewish People's longevity; and its enduring love for its aboriginal homeland, the city of Jerusalem and the site of the Temple. Indicting Christian bigotry, he portrayed the Jews as a long-persecuted People of perhaps three million. Referring to "the destiny of this people," Le Breton judged Jews capable of forming "the body of a nation" in "Palestine." To that place, "they would rush from the four corners of the globe if given the signal." They would be won over to "our Revolution" and forever grateful to France (la grande nation).

Le Breton was perhaps following the playbook of the renowned French philosopher Voltaire (d. 1778). On July 6, 1771, Voltaire wrote a letter (published 1784) to the Empress Catherine of Russia (d. 1796) who was waging war (1768-1774) against the Ottomans. Therein, Voltaire suggested that she use her influence with her Egyptian partner, the Mamluk potentate Ali Bey (d. 1773), "to have the temple of Jerusalem rebuilt, and there to recall all the Jews." Normally, Voltaire was sharply critical of both Jews and Judaism. Thus, his real intention was more likely to spite the Roman-Catholic Church, his usual target. Though Le Breton did not refer to Voltaire, he mentioned Ali Bey's alleged offer to sell Jerusalem to the Jews of Livorno.

As an ex-priest, Le Breton had to have known that, in restoring the Jews to their aboriginal homeland, the Revolutionary French Republic would (apart from anything else) be joining the revered Voltaire in mocking Catholic doctrine. For revolutionaries, it was a bonus that such a Jewish return to Eretz Yisrael (אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל‬) would outrage Catholics, by contradicting key Christian prophecy about the end of days.

Hopes high till Napoleon's fleet annihilated in Aboukir Bay

When Le Breton wrote, Napoleon had already implemented key revolutionary ideology by emancipating the Jews of Italy. He abolished the ghettos (1796-7) during his spectacular conquest of the Italian peninsula and the Venetian islands of the Ionian Sea, off the coast of Greece. Suddenly, Jews in Italy and on the Ionian Islands got equal rights of citizenship and immediately began participating in the new order as soldiers, officials, envoys, emissaries, agents and spies. In the late 1790s, the revolutionary press was mostly philo-semitic. The tendency was to portray Jews positively, including as soldiers fighting for the cause of the Revolutionary French Republic. For better or worse, Jews were then perceived to be partisans of the Revolution which was, at the same time, characteristically anti-Catholic.

Erfolgte Kapitulation zwischen dem General Bonaparte und dem Groß Meister
von Maltha, Vor der Hauptstadt Waletta zu Maltha, am 10. Juni 1798

[Successful surrender between General Bonaparte and the Grand Master
of Malta, in front of the capital Valletta on Malta, on June 10, 1798.]

Napoleon truly astonished the Mediterranean world by taking the mighty island fortress of Malta from the Roman-Catholic Order of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem (June 1798). The impact was all the greater because, for centuries, the Knights had been infamous slavers capturing Muslims, Orthodox Greeks, and Jews. These unfortunates were sold, ransomed or kept to row the Maltese galleys. "May its name be wiped out!" was the accustomed rabbinic malediction for the Malta of the Knights of Saint John. From the 17th century, there was a Jewish prophecy that the final defeat of these Knights would be the first sign of Redemption. Such messianic thoughts were naturally stimulated by Napoleon's quick victory; his expulsion of the Knights from Malta; his dramatic freeing of the slaves, Jews too; and his establishment of Jewish civic rights, including the right of local Jews to freely practice Judaism in their own synagogue.

From Malta, Napoleon wrote in the French language to the commissary of the Revolutionary French Republic in the newly-annexed and provocatively-named Département de la Mer-Égée [Department of the Aegean Sea]. This French official was specifically ordered to inform the population of his département about the great victory of the Republic (June 14, 1798): "Also don't forget any means to publicize it to the Greeks of the Morea and the other [Ottoman provinces]." More than a month later, the French Embassy in Constantinople noted a directly-related conversation with the Phanariote Dragoman of the Porte, who held the second most important post in Ottoman foreign affairs (July 25, 1798):
Prince [Constantine] Ypsilanti showed to Citizen [Michel Ange Louis] Dantan [the French Dragoman] an Italian letter which this general [Napoleon] wrote from Malta to the Greeks of the Department of the Aegean Sea, and in which he invites them to announce the freedom (la liberté) of the Maltese, to the Greeks of the Peloponnese as a prelude to their own. "As dragoman of the divan," he added, "I cannot approve of the ambitious views of Citizen Bonaparte regarding Ottoman territory; but as a Greek, I curse a boastfulness that will cost the lives of more than 10,000 Greeks, ready to be massacred by the Turks."
Among Mediterranean Jews and Greeks, Napoleon's string of stunning victories increasingly triggered a soaring expectation that only climbed still further with his conquest of Ottoman Egypt from the local Mamluks (July 1798). National dreams of the early arrival of "liberty and equality" persisted from 1797 until news spread of the annihilation of Napoleon's fleet at Aboukir Bay by British Admiral Horatio Nelson (August 1-3, 1798).

The French naval disaster in Egypt ended an exceptional period of heightened anticipation when Napoleon was seen by many Jews as Messiah and by many Greeks as a second Alexander, destined to soon conquer Constantinople and liberate Turkey's subject Peoples. During that interval of excitement, such keen revolutionary hopes were purposely fed by the Directory's mouthpiece, Le Moniteur which persistently published reports of real or imagined rebellions, and several times predicted the imminent fall of the Ottoman Empire.

George Arnald (1827), end of the great French flagship L'Orient
at the Battle of Aboukir Bay, August 1-3, 1798.
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Revolutionaries as neighbors to Balkan Jews

Regarding both secret agents and the conduct of France's foreign relations, legislator and diplomat François Barbé-Marbois in Paris told the upper chamber, le Conseil des Anciens (June 26, 1797):
The most important operations are consummated, not in his [Minister of External Relations] offices, but rather under the tent of the generals of the Republic. That is to say, it is the bayonet that cuts the quills of our policies, and it is the War Department that picks up the expense of our negotiations.
From mid 1797, General Bonaparte became the Ottoman Empire's next-door neighbor in the region of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas -- pertinently including Ancona (Italy); the Ionian Islands; and the Balkan coast at Butrinto, Parga, Preveza and Vonizza. There, la division française du Levant reported to Napoleon as General in Chief of the Army of Italy.

Soon, the Ottoman Near East was swarming with French agents and awash in revolutionary propaganda, as 1797-8 reports to Constantinople from Turkish regional officials repeatedly indicated. In this regard, Le Moniteur confirmed the Sultan's worst fears (February 13, 1798): "Sudden revolution [in the Ottoman Empire] will be the fruit of Greek-language writings which arrive in profusion and which are distributed among the People to prepare them for a great change."

In 1797-8, Livorno, Rome, Pisa and Venice had Hebrew-language presses and Jewish typesetters ready to meet the needs of the new revolutionary order. Moreover, Napoleon was then personally positioning presses equipped with characters for printing propaganda in French, Italian, Greek, Ottoman-Turkish and Arabic.

For example, a printing press was dispatched to the (formerly Venetian) Ionian island of Corfu. There, the French printed a proclamation in Greek and Italian which announced that "with the establishment of a press, those kings still sitting on their shaky thrones tremble, their iron yoke has been lifted from off the necks of the people by revolution." That same press was soon also used to print, significantly in Italian, the lectures (discorsi) delivered in the synagogue on Corfu. There, local Jews were major beneficiaries of the new revolutionary regime. Alongside the French, Corfiote Jews valiantly fought as soldiers trying to defend their island against the combined attacks of reactionary Russians and Ottomans (1798-9).

The link between Jews of Italy and those of the Ottoman Empire was specifically described by Le Breton in La Décade philosophique (April 19, 1798):
I take it from a citizen who was employed with distinction in the ports and cities of the Levant, and who merits full trust, that the Jews of Livorno, having recognized in the detachment of the Army of Italy which occupied that city, a child of the synagogue honored with the rank of French officer, were so taken with it to the point of enthusiasm that they expressed their joy to the Jews of the [Greek] Archipelago and that this little circumstance caused the latter to love our revolution.

Napoleon targeted the Ottoman Peoples

Despite more than two hundred years of friendship between France and the Ottomans, Napoleon had scant respect for the Sultan's sovereignty. Napoleon imagined the Ottoman Empire to be already collapsing, so he wanted to give it a bit of a push himself. Naturally, he presumed that France would always keep supreme position as la grande nation. But beyond that, he regarded the Ottoman corpse as big enough to satisfy the national dreams of a long list of fraternal Peoples -- including Greeks, Albanians, Jews, Druze, Armenians, and also Muslim Arabs and Turks. This kind of thinking explains his planning to occupy Ottoman Egypt. It also accounts for his policy of encouraging the separatist ambitions of the Sultan's actual or potential Muslim rivals like Osman Pasvanoğlu, the Pasha of Vidin; and Tepedelenli Ali Pasha, based in Yanina.

But closer to Napoleon's revolutionary ethos were his concerted efforts to spread the "spirit of liberty" among the Sultan's non-Muslim, tribute-paying subjects, the raya (Ottoman: رعايا). Starting no later than 1797, he repeatedly aimed seditious propaganda at the subject Peoples of the entire Ottoman Empire. And to be sure, nothing less than that had been specifically commanded by the Directory via France's Minister of External Relations, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, who until 1791 had been Roman-Catholic Bishop of Autun (August 23, 1797):
Nothing is more important than that we put ourselves on a good footing with Albania, Greece, Macedonia and other provinces of the Turkish empire in Europe and even with all those that are bathed by the waters of the Mediterranean, notably Egypt which one day could become of great utility to us. The Directory, in approving the ties which you have established with Ibrahim Pasha and the Albanian nation, desires that you make the French people known to the remainder of the Turkish provinces, in a way that sooner or later could turn out to their benefit and to ours, and to the disadvantage of our common enemies.
Meeting his old friend in Passariano, at the eastern extremity of Italy, General Louis Desaix described in his diary what he had then learned from Napoleon about the French plan to bring down the Ottoman Empire (September 1797):
The general has a great and skillful policy: it is to give to all of these folks there a grand idea of the French nation. He has received the Directory's command to spread that idea throughout all of Africa and Greece via printing presses, proclamations. He wins the hearts of all these nations; he reminds them of their ancient glory, their ancient name; he instructs them about the astonishing and prodigious feats of the French. And, they are all surprised to find out what they learn; they are very thirsty for news; they come in great numbers to Ancona to equip themselves with merchandise and one of their greatest pleasures is to take these proclamations to read and to carry them back to their country.

Compelling Sept. 1797 testimony about Napoleon's proclamations to
the various Peoples of the Ottoman Empire is provided in the
Journal de voyage du Général Desaix, Suisse et Italie, 1797
(Paris, 1907), p. 256.

Those familiar with 18th-century Adriatic trade would immediately know that Jews were then a rather important part of the commerce between Ancona and the Ottoman east. Thus, there is no sense in which Desaix's revealing passage can reasonably be read so as to exclude the many Jewish merchants who regularly went to do business in Ancona, where there was also a large Jewish community already enthusiastic for the revolution and Napoleon. Nor can the quote be reasonably read so as to exclude the Jewish People from the phrase "all these nations," as used by Desaix to describe the various Peoples of the Ottoman Empire, which then stretched all the way from north Africa through western Asia into the Balkan lands.

A proclamation to the Jews before 1799

News of an undated revolutionary proclamation to the Jews reached the Ottoman Turks certainly before Sultan Selim III declared war against France (September 10, 1798); and probably during the Muslim year 1212, which began on June 26, 1797 and ended at sundown on June 14, 1798. That is what we learn from the Ottoman Empire's chosen historiographer, Ahmet Cevdet Pasha who intellectually was a towering figure. To the point, the high quality of Cevdet's historical writing has been praised by Bernard Lewis (1953).

In the mid-19th century, Cevdet began producing in the Ottoman-Turkish language, for the period 1774-1826, an authoritative twelve volumes, based mainly on documents in the imperial archives in Constantinople. As the Ottoman Empire's officially-appointed chronicler (Ottoman: vakanüvis وقائع نوىس), Cevdet had to be very careful about sequence and chronology. He was neither ambiguous nor confused in clearly pointing to the several months before the September 1798 Ottoman declaration of war against France.

Written in the Ottoman-Turkish language,
Ahmet Cevdet Pasha, Tarih-i Cevdet, Vol. 6, p. 282,
New Edition, 2nd Printing (H. 1309).

Professionally scrupulous about identifying his various sources, Cevdet specifically writes that it was then heard, "from the mouth of a Jew" (بر يهودى آغزندن), that as "understood from a printed and published official declaration" (بر بياننامه قالمه آلنه رق طبع و نشر ايله), Jews from all over had been invited to agree on "establishing a Jewish government in Jerusalem" (قدس شريفده بر يهود حكومتى تشكيل).

Jews as secret agents

Who was this Jew who told the Ottomans about the official declaration for a Jewish government in Jerusalem? It is impossible to say. However, we should bear in mind that Napoleon certainly had Jewish spies, agents or emissaries in the Balkans. For example, Le Moniteur published a Constantinople report (May 13, 1799):
On the 16th of this month [April 5, 1799] in the Bostanji-Bashi prison, the Porte had strangled to death a Jewish physician, lately come from Rushcuk [Ruse on the Danube] with the Kapudan Pasha [November 1798]. Definite proof had been acquired that he was a secret emissary of the French.
More Jewish secret emissaries? The Turks certainly thought so. After the first week of September 1798, they would not let young Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (Ukraine) disembark in Jaffa, because they thought he was a French spy. And, it seems that they perhaps had some reason to be concerned about Jews, many of whom were then dazzled by Napoleon.

Until the Dey of Algiers followed the lead of his Ottoman suzerain in declaring war against France, Marseilles members of the prominent Algerian Jewish merchant families Bacri and Abucaya were used by the Directory for transmitting secret dispatches to Napoleon in Egypt. The Directory appointed two Jewish secret emissaries for the same purpose in 1799. Twenty-one years of age, the Jewish soldier Samson Cerfberr de Medelsheim was sent out from Paris with dispatches in April, but captured by the British Navy off Sardinia. Forty-eight years of age, the Polish Jew Zalkind Hourvitz was a prize-winning essayist, veteran revolutionary, and ex-employee of the Bibliothèque nationale. He was just about to begin his journey from Paris to Egypt, when news arrived of Napoleon's return to France (October 1799).

Another example of a Jewish secret agent was the radical English publicist Lewis Goldsmith. Throughout the 1790s, he openly championed the cause of the French Revolution. No later than 1800, he was secretly on Talleyrand's payroll to produce London propaganda against the policies of Prime Minister William Pitt, the Younger. In January 1801, Goldsmith published The Crimes of Cabinets, subtitled "a review of their plans and aggressions for the annihilation of the liberties of France and the dismemberment of her territories." He was later a Paris editor and propagandist, and also a spy for Napoleon in Europe. Eventually, Goldsmith turned against Napoleon. In fact, Goldsmith became so famous as a vitriolic critic of the French Emperor that, after the Bourbon restoration, he earned a pension from King Louis XVIII of France.

Napoleon's propaganda resented by Turkey 

From 1797 the Turks were fully alive to the modern political meaning of all those French references to the glories of ancient Greece. In retrospective analysis, Cevdet Pasha understood the revolutionary evocations of ancient Greece and Jerusalem to be identical in terms of source, time, and anti-Ottoman motive. On either side, contemporary diplomatic correspondence and other evidence show that the Turks then knew that Napoleon and his local commanders were publishing inflammatory proclamations and dispatching letters and subversive emissaries to spark revolt against the Sultan on the Aegean islands, and in Morea and Rumelia.

Such efforts were certainly aimed at revolutionizing Greeks. But, there were also important Jewish communities on the islands of Crete and Rhodes. And, Rumelia included the heavily-Jewish city of Salonika, as well as Edirne and Larissa where there were also many thousands of Jews. In the Morea, there was a major Jewish presence in Tripolis, but also Jewish communities at Mystras, Kalamata and Patras. Large numbers of Jews lived in Constantinople, Bursa, Izmir, Aleppo, Damascus, Safed, Jerusalem, Alexandria; as well as in so many other places of the Ottoman Empire.

The Foreign Minister (Ottoman: reis-ül-küttab رئيس الكتاب‎) and the Dragoman of the Porte repeatedly protested to the French Embassy in Constantinople, as in late 1797 and again in June and July 1798. These Ottoman grievances were embodied in a long memorandum shared with the diplomatic corps simultaneous to Turkey's September 1798 declaration of war against France.

The Ottomans were astute in articulating the French strategic conception of la grande nation: "Everywhere weak republics would be created which France would keep under its tutelage, so that everything everywhere would go according to its arbitrary will." The foregoing and other generous excerpts from the Ottoman memorandum appeared one month later in the Wiener Zeitung (October 10, 1798):
One knows about Bonaparte's letter [July 30, 1797] to the Maniotes [in the Morea] and of other distributed writings of his deceitful genius. When the Sublime Porte in the strongest terms complained about this, the French government downplayed the matter and undertook to stop it immediately, saying that it wished nothing else than to strengthen the old friendship. But, the [French] generals did not in the least change their behavior. To the contrary, they were even more enterprising and cunning than before.
The Turks were dead right. Sometimes, Napoleon himself recruited his own spies and emissaries, even paying them personally or signing their bank drafts.

Maniotes but not Jews?

Napoleon's modus operandi and rationale relating to the oppressed Peoples of the Ottoman Empire is exemplified by his efforts aimed at the Maniotes who numbered no more than 40,000. Napoleon wrote to the Chief of the Maniotes (July 30, 1797): "The French value the small, but brave Maniote People who alone of ancient Greece has known how to preserve its liberty." Moreover, from Milan, he informed the Directory (August 1, 1797):
The Chief of the Maniotes, a people who trace genuine descent from the Spartiatae, and who occupy the peninsula on which Cape Matapan is situated, has sent one of his principal men to express to me his wish to see French vessels in his port, and to be of some service to the Great Nation.
Already known to Napoleon were Dimo Stephanopoli and his nephew Nicolo, both born and raised in Corsica. Napoleon first checked to make sure that the two were really fluent in their ancestral Maniote dialect, and then sent them in September 1797 to sow "seeds of true liberty" in Mani. The diplomatic letter that the Stephanopoli carried to Mani explicitly recognized the peoplehood of the Maniote "nation" which was celebrated as descending from ancient Sparta. According to Napoleon, the Revolutionary French Republic and the Maniotes were "two nations equally friends of liberty."

Napoleon specifically saluted Maniote peoplehood and tried to subvert the few Maniotes. Therefore, why would anyone doubt Cevdet Pasha's official account of a 1797-8 French-Revolutionary appeal to the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire? True, the Maniotes were famous as fierce warriors. But, in the Ottoman Empire, Jews were more numerous than Maniotes, not to mention the millions of Jews across Europe. Moreover, revolutionary Jews had already shown that they too could fight; and generally Jews could also offer Napoleon other kinds of important advantages.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1863), Bonaparte in the Mideast, 1798-1799.
The Revolutionary French Republic and Bonaparte then
strongly championed the new political principles of
popular sovereignty and the self-determination of Peoples.

Propaganda for niche markets

Napoleon always placed exceptional emphasis on communications and public relations, including revolutionary propaganda custom-made for niche audiences, in various places. For example, from late 1796, he was promising to "revolutionize" Hungary. His proclamation to the Army of Italy rhapsodized (March 10, 1797): "It is freedom (la liberté) that you will bring to the brave Hungarian nation." In this connection, he wrote to General Charles-François-Joseph Dugua in Trieste (March 26, 1797):
You will find attached a copy of my proclamation to the army that you will arrange to translate into German, Hungarian, Italian; that you will arrange to print and seek to distribute in Hungary to the greatest extent that you are able. You will send me five hundred copies of them in Hungarian, five hundred in German, and two hundred in Italian.
Additional propaganda aimed at sparking "insurrection" there. The Austrian intelligence agency, the Polizeihofstelle, told the Habsburg Emperor Francis II, who was also King of Hungary (December 27, 1797):
Although one is already accustomed to Bonaparte's boastful tone, it is still very noteworthy that he says, via published pamphlets that have come straight from Hungary, that this kingdom's transformation into a republic depends on him.

As commander-in-chief of the Army of Italy (1796-7), Napoleon had always been specially concerned about the availability of both printing presses and foreign-language typeface. For example, he repeatedly signaled urgent need for Greek and Arabic characters, the latter also useful for printing in Ottoman-Turkish.

Less than a week after his Army of the Orient disembarked in Ottoman Egypt, Napoleon ordered (July 7, 1798) French, Arabic and Greek printing to begin within twenty-four hours. He wanted four thousand Arabic-language proclamations pronto. He frequently wrote to ensure that his proclamations were distributed to the inhabitants of Egypt.

Napoleon was also astute and proactive in finding imaginative ways to spread his proclamations in Greater Syria, to which regular travel was still possible during July and August 1798. For example, the French invasion fleet had carried from Malta some of the prisoners freed from slavery imposed by the Knights of Saint John. Napoleon made sure that the former prisoners heading home to "Syria" were equipped with copies of his proclamations, which were probably also made available to ordinary travelers heading in that direction. There is certainly no reason to presume that Jews were lacking among the Malta prisoners, other travelers, and the many spies that Napoleon was trying to send from Egypt to "Syria." Such spies, emissaries and agents carried various proclamations and secret letters.

London, The True Briton, No 1922,
Tuesday, February 19, 1799.

For example, The True Briton of London published (February 19, 1799) an English translation of an undated, Arabic proclamation that Napoleon had preemptively addressed to "the inhabitants of Syria." We can be certain that this proclamation originated before 1799, due to the average speed of late 18th-century communications from the Mideast to Constantinople, and then onward to Vienna and London. Thus, Napoleon drafted this proclamation proleptically, i.e. written as a "flash forward" into the future. This document was produced at a minimum, fifty days before he left Cairo (February 10, 1799) to cross the Sinai Desert. Consistent with revolutionary doctrine, the divinity of Christ is denied and the populace invited to rally to Napoleon's banner (1798):
Cairo the Great, Alexandria the Powerful, Cyprus, Jerusalem, Ptolemais [Acre], and Damascus, the plains and the ancient monuments which surround those Cities, have witnessed [prolepsis] the approach of our Armies, whose power is infinite, and incomprehensible even to the wise. Protection to every City which shall open its gates to us! But woe to those Cities and their inhabitants, which shall reject our beneficence! It is to declare this truth to all Syria that we have issued this Proclamation which is irrevocable. If you repair to our standard, you will never be forsaken -- if not, the sword of vengeance shall reach your heads.
The Ottomans derided such proclamations as lying "sweet talk." Nonetheless, after Napoleon's army took Gaza (February 25, 1799), there were more proclamations for Muslims and also a series of individual messages for Christians in the Lebanon, Nazareth and Jerusalem.

On March 7, 1799, Napoleon conquered Jaffa. First the city was sacked. Then, after the initial slaughter, there were some premeditated mass killings of civilians and prisoners of war. Specifically, the extermination of the Ottoman prisoners of war continued until March 10th. Napoleon exploited this horror to send four separate proclamations to threaten the Muslims of Acre; Jerusalem; Nablus; and Gaza, Ramle and Jaffa. In each case, he asked them to choose between submission and the terrors of war. To the latter three cities of the coastal strip, he wrote (March 9, 1799):
It is good for you to know that all human efforts are useless against me, because everything that I undertake must succeed. Those who declare themselves to be my friends prosper. Those who declare themselves to be my enemies perish. The example which has just happened at Gaza and Jaffa ought to make you know that, if I can be terrible to my enemies, I am good to my friends and above all mild and merciful to the poor people.
Later, he also wrote a private letter to court Bashir Shihab II, the Emir of the Druze (March 20, 1799): "My intention is to make the Druze nation independent, to lighten the tribute which it pays, and to deliver to it the port of Beirut and other towns necessary for the outflow of its commerce."

Why not the Jews?

So, Napoleon troubled to write a letter to the Emir of the Druze and even a proclamation to the Sheikh of Nablus, but nothing either for the Jews of Ottoman Syria or for the great Jewish People of world history? Before and during his "Syrian" campaign, Napoleon certainly sought to derive advantage from every other significant component of the local population. Thus, it would have been exceedingly peculiar for him to have omitted communications or approaches to Jews. However, Jews in "Syria" were wisely far too afraid of the prospect of brutal Ottoman retaliation to have much to do with the French invaders.

Nonetheless, some time in the week following the conquest of Jaffa, Napoleon had a talk with some Jews, probably at his requisitioned residence in the roomy seaside home of the consular agent Antonio Damiani, who was a Christian. The latter represented Britain and various other parties, including the Constantinople rabbinate in helping disembarking Jewish pilgrims find lodging in Jaffa. There, the Jews told Napoleon that he was seen as the savior of the Jewish People. In reply, Napoleon questioned them about the present situation of the Jews in the country, their expectations for the future, and some pertinent points of Jewish history.

Jewish history weighed heavily

Despite revolutionary secularism, Napoleon took ancient Jewish history very seriously. He had read Jacques Basnage's History of the Jews and was familiar with the works of Josephus. Before sailing for Egypt (May 19, 1798), Napoleon had prepared a list of the books he wanted on board. There, he classified the Catholic "Old Testament" under the heading of "politics," along with some titles like the Koran and Montesquieu's De l'esprit des lois. An hour before Napoleon left Cairo for the "Syrian" campaign, he wrote to the Directory (February 10, 1799): "When you read this letter, it is possible that I might be on the ruins of the city of Solomon."

Regarding the "Syrian" campaign, Napoleon reminisced (January 1813): "I constantly read Genesis when visiting the places it describes and was amazed beyond measure that they were still exactly as Moses had described them." During his exile on Saint Helena, Napoleon personally completed (1819) a careful account of the campaign. He again recalled that he and his entourage were struck by the accuracy of the geographical descriptions in the Catholic Old Testament, which the French mathematician Gaspard Monge read aloud to them in the evenings, in the tent of the General in Chief.

Napoleon's soldiers came very close to Jerusalem. But he was careful not to take the Holy City, because he wanted to move fast to first capture the fortified ports at Jaffa and Acre. Moreover, for political reasons, he wished to parry any Muslim perception that he might be yet another Roman-Catholic Crusader. But despite their revolutionary scorn for Christianity, his troops were still "burning to see" sacred sites like the "plateau of the Temple of Solomon," as Napoleon specifically recollected.

Secret agents & "legitimate heirs of Palestine"

In 1819, Napoleon also remembered that the French Revolutionary Army had in early 1799 sent Jewish agents to Damascus and Aleppo. The implication was that their mission was to secretly gather intelligence and discreetly stimulate local Jewish support. If so, did they confidentially invoke revolutionary doctrines of "liberty, equality and fraternity"? Did their discreet propaganda portray Napoleon as ready to sponsor restoration of the Jerusalem Temple?

Perhaps linked to one or more of these Jewish agents is a pitch-perfect document that (without payment or other financial incentive) first surfaced in 1940 London. This discovery was a modern trace of Napoleonic ephemera. Originating from Nazi Vienna (August 1939), it was an elderly refugee's last-minute, German-language typescript of his Prague, Orthodox-Jewish family's long-treasured, handwritten document. Without specifying source language, the latter speaks for itself in saying that it is a 1799 translation into German from an original Napoleon text, dated April 20, 1799.

The 1799 translator appears to have himself invented the title, "Letter to the Jewish Nation from the French Commander-in-Chief Buonaparte." Thereafter follows the place, "Hauptquartier Jerusalem" [Headquarters Jerusalem], and the date, "1. Floreal im Jahre 7 der französischen Republik" [1 Floréal, Year VII of the French Republic]. The body of the actual text then begins: "Buonaparte, Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the French Republic in Africa and Asia, to the legitimate heirs of Palestine!" And throughout, the reference is to "Israelites," with no mention of "Jews" or "Jewish."

No inference can be drawn from the Italianate spelling of Napoleon's family name, because at issue here is a self-declared German translation, perhaps from Hebrew or French, or maybe even from Italian. Evidently, the translator might have himself opted for the family-name spelling most familiar in contemporary German usage. In 1799 both variants were commonly used in the European press, sometimes even in Le Moniteur.

In that specific year, April 20th was notably the first day of Passover, which is pertinently a Jewish holiday celebrating the theme of the liberation of the Jewish People. For added political force, the alleged Napoleon letter falsely (or perhaps proleptically) identifies Jerusalem (also cited as "David's city") as the site of Napoleon's headquarters. Similar "flash forward" prolepsis already featured in the aforementioned 1798 proclamation to the inhabitants of Syria.

Napoleon's 1798-9 proclamations for Muslims were intentionally drafted with something of an Islamic flavor. In the same vein, this letter to "Israelites" is peppered with biblical personalities and citations. But these were drawn, not from the Jewish Bible, but rather from the Catholic Old Testament, known to be among the tomes in Napoleon's personal library in Ottoman "Syria." To the point, the alleged Napoleon letter specifically cites the Book of Maccabees. This features in the Catholic Old Testament, but in neither the Jewish Bible nor the Protestant versions. Thus, this letter was not from a Jewish pen. No matter what the sect or stripe, no Jew in his right mind would in 1799 have tried to influence other Jews generally, with a citation from the Catholic Old Testament.

Rather, the letter's authorship is suggested by its celebration of Israelites as descendants of the Maccabees, who are honored as heroes worthy of their "fraternal alliance" with Sparta and Rome. This obscure diplomatic detail, taken straight from the Book of Maccabees, is exactly the kind of classical reference that fascinated Napoleon. Here, the rhetoric regarding Rome and Sparta matches his usual perorations elsewhere.

For sure, this letter dovetails with the aforementioned formula described by General Desaix (September 1797): "He reminds them of their ancient glory, their ancient name; he instructs them about the astonishing and prodigious feats of the French." Thus, the letter heaps extravagant praise on the Revolutionary French Republic, highlighted as la grande nation, in the German text die große Nation.

"Israelites" are described as "lawful heirs" to their "ancestral land" and encouraged to "hasten" home to reclaim their "patrimony." In the context of the new political doctrine of self-determination, the letter places great emphasis on Israelite peoplehood. The word Volksexistenz [existence as a People] notably appears twice. In the first instance, it is stressed that "tyranny and lust for conquest have been able to deprive the Israelites of their hereditary lands but unable to take away (not even in millennia) their name and their existence as a People." In the second place, the letter concludes with an exhortation to Israelites to seize the opportunity to reclaim their "political existence as a People among the nations" [ politische Volksexistenz der Nationen].

Many are insufficiently aware of the striking modernity of the French-Revolutionary rhetoric surrounding peoplehood and self-determination. Thus, they mistakenly imagine that here they can spot a glaring anachronism that imports late 19th-century Zionist concepts into 1799. But almost all of the scholars, who have carefully studied the letter, believe that (whether written by Napoleon or a forgery) the substance of the text really does date from 1799. Moreover, Napoleon from time to time used similar language elsewhere. For example, look at his proclamation to the Hungarians (May 15, 1809): "You have national customs; a national language: You take pride in an illustrious and ancient origin. Therefore, take up again your existence as a nation!"

If we take this letter to be genuine, it could perhaps have been written after the Battle of Mount Tabor (April 16, 1799), where Napoleon decisively defeated a regional Ottoman army led by the Pasha of Damascus. Judged from the sometimes trivial subject matter of his contemporary correspondence, Napoleon then had lots of time on his hands. Perhaps he used some hours in further efforts to spark rebellion among the disparate elements of the population. At that time, he wanted to get all "Syria" to revolt against the Ottomans, as confirmed by his then private secretary Louis de Bourrienne. The latter recorded verbatim Napoleon's conception of what was to have followed the expected (but ultimately unrealized) French conquest of Ottoman Acre. There, Napoleon counted on capturing a great pile of cash and a large store of arms and ammunition (May 8, 1799):
I march on Damascus and Aleppo. While advancing into the country, I grow my army with all the discontented; I announce to the people the abolition of servitude and of the tyrannical governments of the pashas.

Rabbi Aaron's covering letter 

The 1939 German-language typescript also transcribes the text of a covering letter which, in origin and authorship, is perhaps related to the alleged Napoleon letter, or maybe entirely independent. The 1799 translator placed both letters under a common description as a translation into German; in this instance, from an original, foreign-language document said to be written by a certain "Aaron, son of Levi, Rabbi of Jerusalem." The covering letter's declared target audience lies not in Eretz Yisrael (אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל‬), but rather in the diaspora, with "the children of captivity." As in the foregoing alleged Napoleon letter, so here too the words "Jews" and "Jewish" do not appear.

The source language is unspecified, but generally presumed to have been Hebrew. Claiming to originate from Jerusalem, the alleged rabbinic letter was dated, according to the Hebrew calendar, Nisan 5559. In 1799, this Hebrew month began on April 6th and ended at sunset on May 5th. This companion letter calls for rebuilding both the city walls and a Temple in Jerusalem; and significantly summons to arms all the able-bodied men of Israel, no matter where they live. The Revolutionary French Republic is twice saluted as la grande nation (die große Nation). Pointing to Gideon in the Book of Judges, the covering letter ends with a shout: "Hier Schwerdt des Herrn und Buonaparte!" [Here the sword of the Lord and Buonaparte!]

Aaron, the brother of Moses?

Who was this "Rabbi Aaron" who describes himself as "after countless generations again here in the Holy City first rabbi and priest"? Nobody knows. And, perhaps there never was such a real historical person in the 18th century. To the point, Judaism has famously had no "priests" since the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE). Following this logic, Aaron's puzzling self-description as "first rabbi and priest" must therefore be understood as prolepsis. Via this rhetorical device, the writer flashes forward into the future. His purpose is to dramatize the promise that (with the imminent rebuilding of the Temple) a direct descendant of the biblical Aaron the Levite will once again function as high priest. Thus, "Aaron, son of Levi" is probably intended to be a generic reference to any canonically-qualified "Kohen."

This hypothesis is strengthened by the weighty consideration that signing such a letter with an actual person's name would then have been exceedingly perilous, whether in the Ottoman Empire or the several European countries of the counter-revolution. Thus, in the Holy Land and in so many other places where Jews lived, no important rabbi would have been likely to affix his name to such an inflammatory document.

In 1799, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem was Haim ben Asher Yom Tov Algazy. Like the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Rabbi Algazy then prudently advertised his opposition to the French revolutionaries and publicly demonstrated loyalty to the Sultan. Algazy clung all the tighter to the Ottomans, because -- as so many times in the past -- the various other elements of the local population were trying to incriminate Jews, in this instance by charging complicity with Napoleon. To the point, a Jew wrote a Hebrew letter from Jerusalem (summer 1799):
Since Egypt and the neighboring provinces have been occupied [July-August 1798], a great misfortune has befallen us through the wickedness of the non-Jewish population. They have slandered us by saying that, among the [French] army, twelve thousand military volunteers are serving who are children of Israel. This has done us harm beyond measure. We are being attacked daily, and they threaten to kill us and to destroy all Jews, the inhabitants of Zion, God forbid!

Since 1944, there has been conjecture that the mysterious Rabbi Aaron might perhaps have been Moshe Aharon Halevi, then president of one of Jerusalem's four rabbincal courts. As such, he was no "priest," but entitled to be called "first rabbi," only when presiding. However, to exert his due influence, such an eminent rabbi would probably have used his full name for the covering letter. Even more peculiar is omission of his first name, because "Moshe" famously symbolizes leadership of the Jewish People. In 1799, Moshe Aharon Halevi temporarily returned to his hometown Salonika to tend to the printing of a book of his writings. But, by summer 1799, he reappeared in Jerusalem where he cosigned, with some other local rabbis, a letter to Italian Jews that will be discussed below. This means that he must have felt safe enough to remain in the Ottoman Empire, even after Napoleon's withdrawal. For these reasons, Moshe Aharon Halevi is unlikely to have been the radical rabbi of the covering letter.

Sabbateans, Frankists and Kabbalists

Studying the covering letter, commentators are struck by a flowery melitzah epistolary style; a very particular choice of biblical quotes; and special significance in the expressions "Jehova Zebaoth" (יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת Lord of Hosts) and "der Samen Jakobs" (the seed of Jacob). Such proof has led some to conclude that the covering letter was indeed drafted by a Jew who must also have been one or more of Sabbatean, Frankist and Kabbalist. Sabbateans were Jewish followers of the 17th-century false Messiah Sabbatai Zevi (d. 1676), just as Frankists followed the 18th-century false Messiah Jacob Frank (d. 1791). Kabbalism is a significant current of Jewish belief, mysticism and philosophy that informed Sabbateans, Frankists and some other important expressions of Judaism.

If the covering letter truly suggests one or more of Sabbateanism, Frankism and Kabbalism, that would logically be no evidence against a companion hypothesis that the Jewish writer was perhaps simultaneously a French-Revolutionary agent, whether working near Napoleon or further afield. It has often been said that Sabbateans, Frankists and Kabbalists were attracted to Napoleon because he was then perceived to be anti-Catholic, victorious, and radical. Moreover, we shall later see that the Directory at that time already knew that many Jews believed Napoleon to be the Messiah. The same assessment of such Jewish belief was also made by experienced Austrian diplomat Count Johann Philipp Stadion. Later as Foreign Minister (1805-1809), Stadion remained obsessed with the idea that "in all of Europe the Jews consider the Emperor Napoleon as their Messiah and proclaim it openly."

If so, we cannot just leave it at that -- as some have done -- but rather must also examine Napoleon himself. For his part, he was most certainly (at that time) a true revolutionary and a famous opponent of both Royalists and the Roman-Catholic Church. He was a former Jacobin, close to Maximilien Robespierre's brother Augustin. In both 1795 and 1797, he played a principal part in frustrating actual or imminent right-wing coups against the Directory.

Starting from 1796, he exported the French Revolution to Roman-Catholic Italy. In February 1797, he forced the papacy to pay heavy contributions in cash, cede part of its territories, surrender several hundred ancient manuscripts, and deliver famous works of art. By authority of the Directory, Napoleon from Paris issued the orders (January 11, 1798) for the military occupation of Rome and indigenous creation of a revolutionary Roman Republic. This new sister Republic would replace the pontifical government of Pius VI who was derisively called "Citizen Pope" by the troops of the French Revolutionary Army. Napoleon wanted Pius VI to be scared enough to flee Rome. Moreover, during his Mideast campaign, Napoleon's proclamations and letters to Muslims repeatedly boasted that the French had destroyed both the papal throne and the reviled Roman-Catholic Order of the Knights of Saint John.

Like other revolutionaries, Napoleon persistently denied the divinity of Christ. Consider the theology atop the Arabic version of his proclamation to the people of Egypt (July 1798): "In the name of God, the clement and the merciful. There is no divinity save Allah; He has no son and shares His power with no one." The aforementioned proleptic proclamation "to the inhabitants of Syria" also begins with a similar denial of Christ's divinity.

Napoleon went even further by claiming that, by virtue of the Revolution, the French themselves had become Muslims. For example, the Arabic version of the proclamation to the people of Egypt says: "Kadis, sheiks, imams, tchorbadjis! Tell the people that the French are also true Muslims." There is this same astonishing Muslim assertion in Napoleon's letter to Ahmet Cezzar Pasha, based in Acre (September 12, 1798):
We are no longer like the infidels of those barbarous times who were coming to fight your faith. [To the contrary, now] we recognize it to be sublime, we adhere to it, and the moment has arrived when all regenerated Frenchmen will also become your believers.

Napoleon was irreverent, skeptical, opportunistic and inventive. These qualities were expertly assessed by the Austrian Ambassador in Paris, Klemens von Metternich. In September and October 1806, he reported to Vienna his shrewd observation that Napoleon was quick to spot potential political advantage in Jewish messianic belief. In that same vein, in Egypt in his proclamations to Muslims, Napoleon had purposely portrayed himself in the light of the closely-related Islamic concept of the Mahdi (Arabic: مهدي), preordained by God to conquer that country. Thus, it is certain that, from time to time, Napoleon was eager to create the impression that he might be the Muslim or the Jewish Messiah.

Napoleon was fully in step with the pointedly anti-Catholic championing of the Jews that marked revolutionaries in the years from 1797 to 1799. In recruiting Jews to serve as spies, agents and emissaries, Napoleon would likely have specially sought out Sabbatean, Frankist and Kabbalist sectaries. Such Jews were then said to be particularly numerous in Italy, where Jewish attachment to Eretz Yisrael (אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל‬) remained especially strong, even in the 1790s. Who better than they to revolutionize the Jewish People for Napoleon's effort to destroy the Ottoman Empire? (Sabbateans, Frankists and Kabbalists will reappear in later discussion of the Jews of Prague.)

Proclamation or letter?

The 1939 German-language typescript nowhere contains the word "proclamation." But, Rabbi Aaron's text describes the companion Napoleon piece as a "letter" or Zuschrift. This is also the label that the 1799 translator applies to both items. By contrast to "proclamation" which intrinsically has a public character, "letter" preserves the possibility of confidentiality. Even so, after the French retreat, local Muslims launched pogroms, including the execution of two Jewish students. Moreover, the Jews of Jerusalem and Tiberias were falsely accused of collaboration with the enemy, as an Ottoman pretext for extorting huge bribes.

In summer 1799, Moshe Aharon Halevi and other Jerusalem Rabbis prepared a Hebrew letter for dispatch to Jewish communities in Italy. Therein, they described the negative effects of Napoleon's campaign on the Jews of Eretz Yisrael (אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל‬):
Since the conquest of Egypt, we are having problems with the local populations, which accuse us of having furnished twelve thousand soldiers to Bonaparte. This charge has caused us much trouble, starting from the summer of 1798 to this present summer. Our Jews materially and morally suffered losses from the fighting at Jaffa and Acre. Now, in addition, they have had to sell all their jewels and luxury items in order to raise money to appease the anger of their neighbors.
All this underlines that Mideast Jews were a vulnerable aboriginal minority. Evidently, considerable discretion was needed for conducting relations with them. After his Islamic experience in Egypt (1798), Napoleon would likely have known that a public announcement favoring Jews would enrage both Muslims and Mideast Christians, and endanger Jews throughout the Ottoman Empire. Thus, in 1799, he would probably have opted for a confidential letter rather than a proclamation.

A "proclamation" in the European press

The world seems to have known little or nothing about Napoleon's appeal to the Israelites in his alleged confidential letter of April 20, 1799. But most certainly way too soon to have then originated from distant Ottoman "Syria" came remarkable May 1799 European tidings about an apparently earlier, undated (and perhaps entirely unrelated) Napoleon "proclamation to the Jews." The latter news perhaps reflects the proclamation (beyanname بياننامه) that, according to Cevdet Pasha, the Turks had already heard about in the period before the Sultan's declaration of war against France (September 10, 1798).

In this connection, two or three writers of the last thirty years have referred to one or more alleged 1799 reports (dated April 12th, 17th and 22nd), all most appropriately from Constantinople. This April 1799 news from Turkey was said to have been initially published, maybe toward mid-May, perhaps in the French-language Gazette de Hambourg, a city that was neutral during the War of the Second Coalition. Such vague references are hard to verify directly, because the spring 1799 numbers of the Gazette de Hambourg are extremely rare or no longer exist. I have been unable to find them.

But, let us turn our attention to the press of Berlin, the capital of another neutral power, Prussia. News of an alleged April 22nd Constantinople report featured in the Vossische Zeitung, Number 58 (May 14, 1799):
Konstantinopel, den 22. April. Buonaparte hat, wie es heißt, eine Proklamation an die Juden in mehreren Afrikanischen und Asiatischen Gegenden erlassen, um das Reich von Jerusalem wieder herzustellen. Auch soll er eine beträchtliche Anzahl Juden bewaffnet, in Bataillons formirt haben, und jetzt Aleppo bedrohen. Die Einwohner in der Gegend von Damascus sollen gegen die Pforte in Insurrektion zu seyn. -- Mit der Großvezier sollen auch viele Janitscharen nach Syrien abgehen.  Der Großherr hatte erst selbst nach Syrien abgehen wollen, wogegen aber die nachdrücklichstens Vorstellungen gemacht wurden. Unter den Französ. Truppen in Aegypten sollen fortdauernd ansteckende Krankheiten herrschen. Man erwartet hier ehestens aus der Krimm eine zweite nach dem Mittelländischen Meere bestimmte Russische Flotte.  --  Der Bruder des hiesigen Französischen Schiffbaumeisters, Le Brun, der sich sehr demokratisch zeigte, ist aus dem Türkischen Dienste entlassen worden. Für den Schiffbaumeister selbst besorgt man noch ein schlimmeres Schicksal. 
[Constantinople, April 22nd. In several African and Asian places, Buonaparte has reportedly issued a proclamation to the Jews to rebuild the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He is also said to have armed a considerable number of Jews, formed them into battalions, and to be now threatening Aleppo. The inhabitants in the area of Damascus are said to be in rebellion against the Sublime Porte. -- Many janissaries are expected to go to Syria with the Grand Vizier. The Sultan at first wanted to go to Syria himself, but the most emphatic representations were made against this idea. Persistently contagious diseases are said to prevail among the French troops in Egypt. Expected here any time now, from the Crimea, is a second Russian fleet bound for the Mediterranean Sea. -- The brother of the local French shipwright, Le Brun, who showed himself to be very democratic, has been dismissed from the Turkish service. For the shipwright himself, an even worse fate is feared.]

Berlin, Vossische Zeitung, Number 58,
Tuesday, May 14, 1799.

The hypothesis that the Vossische Zeitung's news of this Napoleon proclamation might perhaps have originated before 1799 is supported by careful analysis of the background of each one of the seven other information items included in this particular Constantinople report. External evidence suggests that, of the seven companion topics, no fewer than five are probably stale news from the second half of 1798:
  • The tale that Napoleon had "armed a considerable number of Jews" was already, in the summer of 1798, a persistent rumor in Ottoman Syria, as specifically affirmed by the aforementioned two Hebrew letters from Jerusalem.
  • Dovetailing with 1798 events was news that inhabitants of Damascus region were in revolt against the Sublime Porte.
  • Epidemics among French soldiers in Alexandria, Damietta and Mansoura began in December 1798.
  • As early as October 24, 1798, the Wiener Zeitung announced that a second Russian fleet would be coming from the Crimea to the Mediterranean.
  • Long gone were fears for the fate of the Le Brun brothers in Constantinople, because those two French shipwrights were, by January 1, 1799, safe in Saint Petersburg, where they soon agreed to serve the Imperial Russian Navy.
Thus, there is no reason to reject the possibility that the Vossische Zeitung story about the Napoleon proclamation to the Jews might perhaps also have originated before 1799, and maybe even in the period before the Sultan's declaration of war against France (September 10, 1798), exactly as presented in the official Ottoman history by Ahmet Cevdet Pasha.

London, The True Briton, No 1997, 
Friday, May 17, 1799.

Too soon to have been copied from the Vossische Zeitung, but most likely derived from prior publication in the Gazette de Hambourg, was the same story in The True Briton of London. This alleged an April 12th Constantinople report, news of which had just arrived, along with many other items, in the latest mails from Hamburg (May 17, 1799):
Buonaparte, it is said, has published a Proclamation to the Jews dispersed in Africa and Asia, inviting them to restore the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He has armed a great number of Jews, and formed them into Battalions; and now threatens Aleppo.
On May 19, 1799, the Sunday newspaper, Bell's Weekly Messenger of London published similar "Turkey" news of Napoleon's call for restoration of "the kingdom of Jerusalem." This was based on an alleged April 12th Constantinople report, said to be derived "from the Hamburgh Mails."

London, Bell's Weekly Messenger,
Sunday, May 19, 1799,  page 155.

Quoting verbatim an undated recent issue of the Gazette de Hambourg was the proclamation story in the French-language Journal Politique de l'Europe of Mannheim (May 19, 1799):
La gazette de Hambourg rapporte une lettre de Constantinople du 12 avril, où il est dit: "Bonaparte a adressé une proclama-tion aux juifs de l'Afrique & de l'Asie, dans laquelle il annonce le projet de rétablir le royaume de Jérusalem & les invite à y concourir. Ce général a déjà armé, dit-on, un nombre considérable de juifs, & les a organisés en bataillons. L'on attend incessamment ici (à Constantinople) de la Crimée, une seconde flotte Russe, destinée pour la Méditerranée."
-- La gazette de Vienne du 7 rapporte une lettre de Constantinople du 19 avril, qui dit que l'armée françoise en Syrie a été repousée dans sa première attaque [March 28, 1799] contre St. Jean-d'Acre.
[The Gazette de Hambourg reports from Constantinople a letter of April 12th, wherein it is said: "Bonaparte has addressed a proclamation to the Jews of Africa and Asia, in which he announces the plan to reestablish the Kingdom of Jerusalem and invites them to rush there together. This general has already armed a considerable number of Jews, and has organized them into battalions. Here (in Constantinople) we await any time now the arrival of a second Russian fleet, bound for the Mediterranean.
--The Gazette de Vienne of the 7th reports a letter from Constantinople of April 19th, which says that the French army in Syria has been rebuffed in its first attack {March 28, 1799} against Acre.] 

Mannheim, Journal Politique de l'Europe, Number 138,
Sunday, May 19, 1799, page 4.

Here also applicable is the earlier analysis of the similar story in Berlin's Vossische Zeitung. Thus, in the Journal Politique de l'Europe, the April 12th Constantinople letter (quoted from the Gazette de Hambourg) contains nothing that could not have been stale news from before 1799. This starkly contrasts with the separate April 19th Constantinople letter which clearly covers events that could only have occurred in 1799. The pertinent point is that nothing in the April 12th letter prevents us from linking the proclamation referred to there with the one Cevdet Pasha assigns to the period before September 10, 1798.

Likely too soon to have been copied from London or Mannheim and also, for intrinsic reasons, more probably derived from the Berlin newspaper was the same story as first item on the front page of Le Moniteur (Paris). Verbatim, the pertinent paragraph from Le Moniteur (below) also appeared on the very same day in Le Propagateur (Paris). Both Paris newspapers cited as source an alleged April 17th report from Constantinople (May 22, 1799):
Constantinople, le 28 germinal. Bonaparte a fait publier une proclamation dans laquelle il invite tous les juifs de l'Asie et de l'Afrique à venir se ranger sous ses drapeaux pour rétablir l'ancienne Jérusalem. Il en a déjà armé un grand nombre, et leurs bataillons menacent Alep.
[Constantinople, April 17th. Bonaparte arranged for the publication of a proclamation in which he invites all the Jews of Asia and Africa to come line up under his banners in order to reestablish ancient Jerusalem. He has already armed a great number of them, and their battalions are threatening Aleppo.]

(prominent as first item on the front page)
Paris, Le Moniteur, No 243, Tridi, 3 prairial an VII
(Wednesday, May 22, 1799).

The four pertinent paragraphs in Le Moniteur contain next to nothing that could not have been derived (more or less accurately) from the German-language text in Berlin's Vossische Zeitung, which had covered more ground. To the point, the incredible claim that armed Jewish battalions were then threatening Aleppo is notably absent from the account in the Journal Politique de l'Europe and therefore also from that in the earlier Gazette de Hambourg. It is true that Le Moniteur then liked to highlight revolutionary Jews as soldiers. But, this strange Aleppo story is otherwise best explained as perhaps nothing more than a simple mistranslation from the German-language text in the Vossische Zeitung. The latter clearly states that it was Bonaparte who was then threatening Aleppo, not armed Jewish battalions. This particular point is confirmed by careful reading of the English-language versions of the same Aleppo story in the True Briton and Bell's Weekly Messenger.

Such Paris plagiarism is hardly surprising because the French government lacked much own-source information as to what was really transpiring in the Mideast, just as Napoleon was then getting very little news from Europe. Nonetheless, the article in Le Moniteur was politically significant, because that newspaper was known to regularly publish news, as provided by the Directory. Clearly, the editors would have waited for an official green light before printing lead-item, front-page news about Napoleon, who was of key concern to the Directors.

Age-old messianism stimulated  

This fascinating "proclamation" story reappeared in the Paris press on May 29th and again on June 27, 1799. For example, La Décade philosophique saluted "invincible Bonaparte" as "master of Syria" and faithfully repeated from Le Moniteur a fanciful figure that multiplied by eight the troop numbers under Napoleon (May 29, 1799):
At the head of an army of one hundred thousand men, [Bonaparte] has proclaimed the delivery of Jerusalem and Judea, and calls back to their ancient homeland the Hebrews dispersed on the planet. Who knows? Perhaps they are going to see in him the Messiah, and soon twenty prophecies will have predicted the happening, the epoch, even unto the circumstance of his coming. It is at the least very probable that the Jewish People will reconstitute itself as the body of a nation, that the Temple of Solomon will be rebuilt.
From Hamburg, Berlin, London, Mannheim and Paris, this blockbuster news spread across Europe and beyond. A contemporary Berlin pamphlet portrayed a debate between a Christian theologian and a Jew. The latter is presented as saying (1799): "All the newspapers speak as one about Bonaparte's conquest of this holy place and add, almost seriously, that he conquered it for the Jews."

Thus, the proclamation was then also well known to German philosopher, theologian, poet and playwright Johann Gottfried von Herder whose command of Hebrew language and literature was solid. His later essay Bekehrung der Juden [conversion of the Jews] first reflects on the pertinent 1799 written debate among David Friedländer, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Abraham Teller. Thereafter, Herder reviewed some secular, practical arguments for either toleration or the return of the Jewish People to its aboriginal homeland. With regard to the latter possibility, Herder sardonically wrote: "Good luck to them if a Messiah-Bonaparte may victoriously lead them there, good luck to them in Palestine!" These words were printed in 1802 but first written perhaps as early as 1800.

The "restoration of the Jews" was also a recurring topic in the 1799 Gentlemen's Magazine of London. And, according to the July 17th Wiener Zeitung, the British House of Lords (June 20, 1799) heard "Lord Radner" (more likely Lord Radnor) condemn secret clubs, free masons and Jacobin societies for propagating the subversive idea of inviting the Jews to gather themselves together to restore "their chimerical Jerusalem."

By contrast, Trinity College Fellow Henry Kett published the widely-read, History, the Interpreter of Prophecy (Oxford,1799). Those three volumes wrestle with the possibility that the Revolutionary French Republic might unwittingly be God's instrument. Kett said the "collected light of Prophecy" foretells "the restoration of the ancient chosen people of God to the land which He gave to their fathers." Nor did Kett believe that such prophecy required Jews first to convert to Christianity:
Granting therefore that the Power of France should execute this project, instead of invalidating, it will confirm the truth of Prophecy, and afford another signal example of the over-ruling providence of God. The wicked and blaspheming Assyrian was the rod of his anger and executed [8th century BCE] his judgments upon his people. The tremendous Anti-Christian Northern Power [the Revolutionary French Republic] which has been raised up to be the scourge of nations, shall "fulfill his will, though in his heart he means not so." The restoration of the Jews may be a part of their commission; and there are some reasons which make this not a very improbable supposition.
Kett judged that "the cruelties that have been exercised upon the Jews for many ages have been a scandal to the Christian name." He warned the nations "to make no vain attempt to hinder the return of the Jews by whatever means it appears designed to be effected, lest they be found to fight against God."

Pompeo Batoni (1775), portrait of Pope Pius VI.
French-Revolutionary hatred for the Roman-Catholic Church
led to creation of the Revolutionary Roman Republic (Feb. 15, 1798).
Pius VI was forcibly exiled to France where he died in Aug. 1799.

The proclamation in Prague

Anonymous, Orthodox Jew B addressed a long letter to Count Wratislaw, head of public security (Stadthauptmann) in Habsburg Prague. B denounced Prague members of the schismatic sect of Jacob Frank for constituting a secret society with dangerous sympathies for "freedom," as advocated by the French Revolution (June 27, 1799):
The overthrow of the papal throne [February 1798] has given their [Frankist] daydreams plenty of nourishment. They say openly, this is the sign of the coming of the Messiah, since their chief belief consists of this: Sabbatai Zevi was savior, will always remain the savior, but always under a different shape. General Bonaparte's conquests gave nourishment to their superstitious teachings. His conquests in the Orient, especially the conquest of Palestine, of Jerusalem, his appeal to the Israelites is oil on their fire (sein Aufruf an die Israeliten ist Öhl auf ihrem Feuer).
Here, the specific reference to "Palestine" and Bonaparte's "appeal to the Israelites" prompts a question: is B perhaps specifically pointing to the alleged Napoleon letter of April 20th instead of (or in addition to) the May 1799 newspaper reports of a "proclamation" to the Jews? No definite answer, because B elsewhere freely oscillates between the terms "Jews" and "Israelites."

What does B's testimony actually prove? It shows firstly that, by summer 1799, Prague Jews certainly knew about Napoleon's appeal and/or proclamation; and secondly, that informer B presumed that Count Wratislaw too was already aware of this amazing story. But, B never alleged that local Frankists were circulating copies of Bonaparte's appeal to the Israelites. Nor did B suggest that they had themselves forged such a document.

Make no mistake about the hypothesis of a 1799 Prague forgery, as recently suggested by one or more historians. Forging such fake letters in the Habsburg Empire at that time would have amounted to the crime of treason, given the "state of war" with France and the purported Jerusalem rabbi's call to arms. Pertinently, B twice over specifically said he did not think local Frankists capable of treason. Nor did the Austrian police subsequently arrest the Prague Frankists, for either serious political crimes or lesser offenses. This last fact must weigh heavily due to the tragic precedent of the Hellenic patriot Rigas, mentioned above. Directly on point, Rigas had been caught (December 1797) with three wooden chests full of revolutionary proclamations in Habsburg Trieste.

However, B did advise Count Wratislaw to regularly read Frankist mail and to search their leader's home for seditious papers on a Saturday afternoon. For this reason, these last eighty years, there has been speculation about the possibility of some sort of a link joining all three of the Frankists; the local Austrian government; and the Prague, Orthodox-Jewish family whose handwritten 1799 translation yielded the text for the 1939 German-language typescript.

If so, we must also take into account 18th-century communications. Specifically, written Napoleonic propaganda leaving Ottoman "Syria" on April 20th would definitely have had enough time (75 days) to reach Prague by July 4th. That was the first day that Count Wratislaw could have received B's advice, because B adds a postscript saying he held back mailing until July 4th.

So, let us provisionally accept the unproven hypothesis that, aimed at the Frankists, was a subsequent Austrian police raid or postal interception that netted those April 1799 letters alleged to be from Napoleon and the purported Jerusalem rabbi. Even in that imagined scenario, there would still be no logical reason to presume a Frankist forgery rather than an authentic text, truly from Napoleon in the Ottoman Near East. There, European Frankists always had some contacts among Kabbalists, Sabbateans and local Frankists.

Moreover, a 1799 Frankist forgery from elsewhere is unlikely, because broader 18th-century Frankism was very different -- on the one hand, from B's colored characterization of local Frankists as stubborn Sabbateans; and, on the other hand, from the mainline French-Revolutionary concepts in the 1799 German translation, so reverentially preserved by the Orthodox-Jewish family of Prague. This conclusion is clear from a glance at the principal messages then dispatched from Frankist headquarters at Offenbach, near Frankfurt.

Handwritten in Hebrew (often in red ink), the infamous "red letters" of 1798-1800 say nothing about either Sabbatai Zevi or Napoleon, as Messiah or otherwise; contradict the French Revolution's strong anti-Catholic animus by repeatedly urging Jews to convert to Roman Catholicism; include just one incidental reference to Jerusalem, but not as destination; and spectacularly lack emphasis on return to Eretz Yisrael (אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל‬). By sharp contrast to Sabbatai Zevi, Jacob Frank and most of his followers were generally cool to the idea of the Jewish People going back to the Mideast. For Frank, Poland was the Promised Land.

Highlighting Jews & the "Temple of Solomon"

Months before the April 20, 1799 letter (Zuschrift) and the several newspaper items about the "proclamation," the dignified phrase "la nation juive" (the Jewish People) came easily to Napoleon's pen. In 1798, he showed respect for the Jewish People, partly in conformity with revolutionary ideology and partly because he could reasonably imagine that he might soon need some help from Mideast Jews. For example, urgently required cash might perhaps come from famously rich Jewish families like the Picciotto (Aleppo) and the Farhi (Damascus). Such a supposition rests squarely on Napoleon's track record in Italy. In spring 1796, his impoverished army there had been bankrolled with 3 million francs in discreet loans from Jewish financiers in Genoa. In 1797-8, part of the money for the French Army of Italy was provided by longtime papal banker, Moses Vita Coen, a Jew from Ferrara.

Into spring 1799, Napoleon still harbored hopes of maybe conquering the whole Ottoman Empire and then perhaps pressing onward either through the Balkans to Habsburg Vienna or via Iran to attack British India. Utter disappointment came only toward the end of May, when failure to take Ottoman Acre seemed to him a turning point in world history. And, he still keenly felt so twenty years later.

احمد جزار پاشا
The Bosnian Ahmet Cezzar Pasha
won great fame in Europe and the Mideast
as the local Ottoman commander who stubbornly

withstood Napoleon's 1799 siege of Acre.

As an exile on Saint Helena, Napoleon carefully read the back issues of Le Moniteur. He would thus have been reminded of the account of a Jewish proclamation, so prominently published as the very first story on the front page of the May 22, 1799 edition. However, he never specifically denied or disavowed this particular news item. For example, his own account of the campaign said absolutely nothing about issuance of any "proclamation" to the Jews.

But very much to the point, Napoleon then chose to refer to the Jewish agents sent to Damascus and Aleppo and to "a vague hope" that was "animating" local Jews when spring arrived in 1799. In the third person, he wrote (1819): "News was circulating among them that, after taking Acre, Napoleon would present himself in Jerusalem where he would reestablish the temple of Solomon." This recollection seems to be Napoleon's admission that, during the "Syrian" campaign, he already knew that some Jews regarded him to be the Messiah.

What Napoleon himself had probably been thinking back in 1799 was perhaps revealed more clearly in Paris in the year following his return from the Mideast. As First Consul of the Republic, he told the Council of State (August 16, 1800): "If I governed a nation of Jews, I would reestablish the temple of Solomon." Napoleon had there been making a broader point about governing to please the majority as "the way to recognize the sovereignty of the people." Thus, in this important democratic context, he chose to rhetorically offer posterity (alongside three other examples) the startling hypothesis of a majority Jewish country centered on the Temple in Jerusalem.

Lettre d'un Juif à ses frères

The "Letter from a Jew to his Brothers" was prominently published in Paris on June 8, 1798, by which time Napoleon's invasion fleet was already at sea, poised to take Malta. The publication specified that it had been translated from an earlier version in Italian. This alleged Italian pedigree is key because, as indicated above, 1797 Italy has to play a big part in any serious attempt to solve the riddle of Napoleon's proclamations to the Jews, including the beyanname (بياننامه) that Ahmet Cevdet Pasha described under the year 1797-8.

The Lettre attracted much attention in both France and beyond, partly because it was the lead item in the Paris daily newspaper L'Ami des Lois, known to be especially close to the Directory. Moreover, readers were specifically told: "Be assured that the philosophy which guides the leaders [the Directory] of this sublime nation [France] would cause them to welcome our request" to help realize the Jewish return to the ancestral homeland.

The Paris daily L'Ami des Lois (June 8, 1798).
This newspaper was reputed to express views of the
Revolutionary French Government and to be
sometimes financed by the Ministry of the General Police.

Was it really written by a Jew? Not likely. Chock full of judaica was the aforementioned La Décade article, written by ex-priest Le Breton. By contrast, the Lettre d'un Juif suspiciously lacks convincing information about Jews, Judaism and Jewish history. But, far stronger are this anonymous writer's revolutionary credentials; for example, his fervent commitment to the notion of France as la grande nation. To the point, he sees global relations, with France as the "invincible nation which now fills the world with its glory." To its great financial and commercial gain, France would mediate between Turks and Jews and, via smart diplomacy, win the consent of the Ottoman Sultan Selim III for the return of the "Israelites" to their native land.

(This scenario made some sense in June 1798, because Talleyrand and Napoleon were still calculating that the imminent French occupation of Mamluk Egypt could be achieved, perhaps without its Ottoman suzerain declaring war against France. Unable to foresee the August annihilation of the French Fleet in Aboukir Bay, Talleyrand and Napoleon in June continued to bet that the Sublime Porte would go very far to avoid fighting France. They judged Selim III to be then way too busy trying to suppress the great Balkan rebellion of Osman Pasvanoğlu, whom the Revolutionary French Republic generally favored.)

Thoroughly consistent with revolutionary ideology, the Lettre indicts "barbarous and intolerant religions" for preaching hatred towards Jews. This critique was most certainly aimed, in the first instance, at the Roman-Catholic Church (June 8, 1798):
The generous constancy with which we have preserved the faith of our ancestors, far from attracting to us the admiration which was our due, only increased the unjust hatred which all the nations hold against us. [...] It is finally time to shake off such an unbearable yoke, it is time to resume our rank among the nations. [...] The hour of awakening has come. Oh my brothers! Let us reestablish the empire of Jerusalem
(l'empire de Jérusalem).

"Empire de Jérusalem"!

This is a curious (even apocalyptic) phrase that merits our attention. We have already seen similar strange language in May 1799 newspapers -- namely in the Vossische Zeitung as "Reich von Jerusalem"; in the True Briton and Bell's Weekly Messenger as "Kingdom of Jerusalem"; and in the Gazette de Hambourg and the Journal Politique de l'Europe as "royaume de Jérusalem."

This is most certainly a Christian rather than a Jewish term. In the Jewish Bible, there is no Israelite or Jewish "Kingdom of Jerusalem." The Jewish Bible has many reverential references to the city of Jerusalem, but for political taxonomy famously focuses on the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah and on the persistent idea of the "Land of Israel" (Heb: אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל‬ Eretz Yisrael).

By contrast, some Christian Bibles mention the "Kingdom of Jerusalem" at least once in the supersessionist Book of Esdras: "Thus saith the Lord unto Esdras, Tell my people that I will give them the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which I would have given unto Israel." Historically, that passage sufficed for naming the medieval, Roman-Catholic Crusader state, the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. Thus, the overly Christian expression "Kingdom of Jerusalem" was in Le Moniteur (May 22, 1799) replaced by an ideologically more acceptable reference to "l'ancienne Jérusalem" [ancient or old Jerusalem].

But Jerusalem is just an historic, municipal place name in the alleged Napoleon letter of April 20, 1799. There, "Israelites" are twice saluted as "rightful heirs of Palestine." This comparison highlights the point that the Lettre's use of the extraordinary expression "l'empire de Jérusalem" perfectly matches Cevdet Pasha's account of a contemporary proclamation for "establishing a Jewish government in Jerusalem" (قدس شريفده بر يهود حكومتى تشكيل). Also striking is the similarity of such markedly-political "Jerusalem" nomenclature across the Lettre and five of the seven May 1799 newspaper reports of the Napoleon proclamation to the Jews.

Does such repeated use of this peculiar term suggest the possibility that the Lettre might perhaps have originated in a revolutionary milieu that had been close to Napoleon in Italy? And for his part, he conceivably could have already been using agents in the Ottoman lands to secretly distribute one or more proclamations referring specifically to both Jews and a Jewish kingdom or government in Jerusalem, maybe as early as September 1797, just as described by General Desaix and explicitly confirmed by Cevdet Pasha.

1798 Jewish peoplehood in vogue

There were public-policy precedents for the initiative for the Jews which Napoleon is alleged to have made in Ottoman "Syria." Along with the fascinating 1798 news of Napoleon's Mideast invasion, then widely discussed across Europe was the hypothesis of a return of the Jews to their aboriginal homeland, just as proposed by Le Breton in the April 19th number of La Décade philosophique and by anonymous in "Letter from a Jew to his Brothers." The Lettre also had great impact in a widely-read English translation published in the St. James Chronicle of London (July 14, 1798). Moreover, both pieces were reprinted in French in London, in Paris Pendant L'Année 1798 [Paris During the Year 1798]. Therein, the anti-revolutionary editor Jean-Gabriel Peltier reflected (1798):
Among the extraordinary events which have occurred in the political world at the end of the 18th century, the return of the Jews to their former homeland would not be the least marvelous. Just a short time ago, the idea would have appeared chimerical, though throughout the centuries the Jews never stopped religiously keeping that hope. Today, the possibility of this happening attracts attention, and it does not seem distant from coming to pass.
Thus, both before and after Napoleon's fleet sailed for Egypt (May 19, 1798), prominently published were some semi-official strategic points and propaganda particularly sympathetic to the idea of Jewish peoplehood and explaining how the Revolutionary French Republic could richly gain by sponsoring the return of Jews to their ancestral homeland.

For example, this same calculation appeared in Bonaparte in Cairo, a rapidly written, anonymous "current affairs" book rushed into print in Paris close to the end of 1798 or the start of 1799. There, France's intention to colonize Egypt was reaffirmed. Regarding restoration to the Jewish People (Fr: la nation juive) of "their land of origin," it was argued: "The conqueror of Egypt is too good a judge of men to misunderstand the advantages which could be derived from this people in the execution of his vast plans."

Two February 1799 letters to the Directory

The seasoned Irish revolutionary Thomas Corbet sent from Lorient in Brittany (February 17, 1799) to the principal Republican leader, Director Paul Barras, a plan for facilitating return of the Jewish People to "Palestine." Pointing to Napoleon in Egypt and also to the wider war against England and its allies, Corbet compared the long-suffering Jewish People to the oppressed Irish and Poles. The Jews were portrayed as also hoping to be free. From a Protestant family, Corbet would have naturally understood the French Revolution's principled fight against the reactionary Roman-Catholic Church, for centuries prime vector for the bacillus of antisemitism.

Another reflection of the public's fascination with the Egyptian campaign was information which fellow Director Merlin de Douai got from Commissioner François, a senior official in northern France. François troubled to report a conversation with a Jew from Germany. According to the latter, Europe's Jews viewed Napoleon as the Messiah whose coming would trigger the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple. The German Jew also said that 1.5 million Jews were awaiting Napoleon's signal to leave for the Mideast. The counsel from Commissioner François was simultaneously strategic and skeptical (February 28, 1799):
One can derive a great deal from these people by flattering their religious prejudices. I leave it to your wisdom either to work to develop this idea if you think it of some value, or to just laugh it off as a joke.
Time, distance and Britain's Royal Navy combined to ensure that the letters from Corbet and François were then most probably unknown to Napoleon who for months on end received very little wartime news from France. But those two letters could well have been among the contemporary factors inspiring the Directory to permit Le Moniteur to authoritatively spread the extraordinary news that Napoleon had issued a proclamation to the Jews of Asia and Africa.

Tactic to gain wartime advantage?

The stunted imagination of antisemites automatically sees Jews as either negligible or a "problem." By contrast, as thoroughgoing opportunists, the Directors were more likely to ask themselves how they could benefit. La Décade philosophique's elite readership had already received (April 19, 1798) the impressive statistic that worldwide there were close to three million Jews, of whom up to 130,000 were in the Mideast. For sure, the Directors knew that those "close to three million" Jews lived mostly in countries hostile to France. For example, there were then close to half a million Jews in the Habsburg Monarchy, which was a particularly stubborn opponent of the Revolution. Thus, publishing striking propaganda to win Jewish support for the Revolutionary French Republic was for the Directory a shrewd tactic to gain wartime advantage.

Such secularism, cynicism, and readiness to exploit were also Napoleon's hallmark. To the point, Bourrienne wrote that Napoleon was only interested in religion to the extent that it had political utility. For example, drawing Talleyrand's attention to France's need to take control of Egypt, Napoleon opined (September 13, 1797):
With [revolutionary] armies like ours, for which all religions are equal -- Muslims, Copts, Arabs, idolators, etc. -- all of that is completely irrelevant; we would respect the one just like the others.
For his 1798 invasion of Egypt, Napoleon repeatedly told local Muslims that the French were now similar to them in religion, because the Revolution had rejected the Holy Trinity, retaining belief in just the one God, exactly as required by Islam. Less than a week before Napoleon left Cairo for France, the same theological gambit featured in his letter of peace overtures to Grand Vizier Kör Yusuf Ziyaüddin Pasha, then with the Ottoman army in Syria (August 17, 1799):
The Sublime Porte, which was the friend of France as long as that Power was Christian, waged war against her the moment that France by her religion drew herself closer to Islamic belief.
Napoleon in his own history of the 1798-9 campaign judged that Cyrus had "protected the Jews and had their Temple rebuilt," because he was thinking about conquering Egypt from the east. Similarly, Napoleon believed (1819): "Alexander sought to please the Jews so that they might serve him for his crossing of the [Sinai] desert."

Here, Napoleon's own ruthless logic suggests that, exactly like the Directory, he too had good reason to discreetly woo Jews, including during the "Syrian" campaign. This would perfectly match his characteristic modus operandi, as well captured by the insightful Austro-Hungarian historian Eduard von Wertheimer (1883):
Napoleon had a system of politics. He used, as a powerful weapon against the States that he wanted to fight, those of their subject nations which he thought had not yet entirely gotten over the memory of their erstwhile independence. Himself a son of the revolution, he knew better than anyone else the power and influence which the idea of freedom exercises upon mankind. Accordingly, he never missed a moment, as soon as his own aims required it, to advertise to those nations that he came to restore their freedom and independence. But for sure, little did he care about the later disappointment he prepared for these Peoples whom he dazzled and misguided with his promises. He just dropped them as soon as they had served their purpose.


After the coup of November 1799, Napoleon was no longer a revolutionary general. As First Consul, he famously made the French Republic's peace with the Roman-Catholic Church (1801). As Emperor of the French from 1804, he similarly sought to regulate the situation of the Jews in France. For example, in May 1806 he convoked an Assembly of Jewish Notables to meet in Paris as prelude to hosting a Grand Sanhedrin in February 1807.

This extraordinary exercise was aimed at Jews, not so much as a People internationally, but rather mostly as a religious confession domestically. By 1806-7, Napoleon's principal pertinent concern was no longer Jewish self-determination in the biblical homeland, but rather how Jews, as practitioners of a distinct faith, could better fit into French State and society.

Nonetheless, accounts of Napoleon's alleged invitation to the Jews to return to Eretz Yisrael (אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל‬) continued to echo. For example, Count Procop Lažanský, the Habsburg Governor (Statthalter) of Moravia, received from Nikolsburg a local police report claiming that some Orthodox Jews there imagined that the real reason Napoleon had called the Sanhedrin was to harness Jewish talent to stimulate France's flagging international trade (October 9, 1806):
France, therefore, wished to favor the Jews and for that reason to demand from the Turkish empire the city of Jerusalem together with the surrounding territories, in order to set up and restore the seat of the Israelite People there.

If not from the Ottoman lands then most certainly from a variety of European publications, the astonishing 1799 story that Napoleon had issued a proclamation to the Jews was widely believed at that time, and thus made its own way through history. Then rapidly rippling through Christendom and also across world Jewry, this exciting tale powerfully stimulated ancient messianic dreams. Whether factually accurate or not, the dramatic news of the proclamation permanently strengthened belief in the practical political possibility of Jewish restoration and renewal in the aboriginal homeland.